Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Mar 14, 2010 - 3 comments


Part 17

That was where the matter stood in 1821 when the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, exhausted by years of competition, merged. The North West Company disappeared, and a re-organized Hudson’s Bay Company took monopoly control of the trade, including the posts in the interior of British Columbia and on the Columbia. When HBC governor George Simpson made his first visit to the coast in 1824 to inspect company operations west of the Rockies, he was appalled at the waste and incompetence he found. “Mismanagement and extravagance has been the order of the day,” he reported. Simpson was known as the “little emperor” for his imperious management style, and he lost no time making changes designed to improve the bottom line. He ordered an immediate reduction of fifty percent in the number of employees, a heavier dependence on local food supplies and the removal of the local headquarters to a new post, Fort Vancouver, built 150 kilometres up the Columbia where the terrain allowed for farming.

The chief of the company’s Columbia District was Dr. John McLoughlin. A veteran of 20 years in the fur business, most of them with the North West Company, McLoughlin had joined the re-organized HBC as a chief factor, and Simpson had handpicked him to orchestrate the changes in the Columbia. The two men were poles apart, physically and temperamentally. Short and portly, Simpson made up for his unprepossessing appearance by cultivating a regal style, dashing about the country in a canoe stocked with port wine and madeira and a bugler to announce his arrivals. Outwardly congenial, he was in practice ruthless and manipulative. His skills were those of a bureaucrat determined to impose efficiency and economy on the fur business. McLoughlin, on the other hand, was a bear of a man, neglectful of his wild appearance, with a shock of white hair and a volatile temper that was often on display. On one occasion he attacked the Anglican missionary Herbert Beaver, who he believed had insulted his wife, beating him over the head and shoulders with his walking stick and threatening to kill him. “He was such a figure as I should not like to meet in a dark Night on one of the bye lanes of London,” Simpson once remarked.

For the next twenty years McLoughlin and Simpson kept up a running battle over the direction the trade should take west of the mountains. Among the points of contention was the coastal fur trade. The North West Company had ignored this side of the business, leaving it to the American merchant vessels. But during his 1824 visit, Simpson approved a plan to pursue the coastal trade more vigorously. This was in large part a tactical move to protect the company’s interior trade. Simpson knew that the sea otter were disappearing and that maritime traders were siphoning off other types of furs by encouraging interior tribes to bring their pelts down to the coast to meet with the ships. He worried that the Americans might decide to open permanent posts, increasing not only their trade but also their pretensions to ownership of the coast north of Juan de Fuca Strait. The first step was to gather useful information about the coast, which the company did in a series of sailing voyages that explored as far north as Observatory Inlet. These excursions confirmed that the trade was lucrative and that it was in the hands of the Americans. “No means exist by Statute or by treaty to check the Americans on the coast,” reported Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson, “they are more accustomed to the trade and better acquainted with the natives & have other facilities of which we are not possessed. Our only plan therefore is to oppose them with a well regulated steady opposition.”

McLoughlin had no quarrel with this assessement. Nor did he disagree with plans to establish a network of trading posts at strategic locations along the coast. Fort Simpson, near the mouth of the Nass River, opened in 1831 (three years later it moved to the site of a Tsimshian village, Lax Kw’alaams, closer to the outer coast at the top of the Tsimpsean Peninsula), followed by Fort McLoughlin on Campbell Island near present-day Bella Bella in 1833, and Forts Taku, just south of the mouth of the Taku River, and Stikine, a former Russian outpost on Wrangell Island at the mouth of the Stikine River, in 1840. Of these, Fort Simpson was the most profitable for the company. Within a few years it was attracting several thousand First Nations and producing trade worth close to £7,000, about half of it profit. Most of the provisions were provided locally, including salmon, halibut and deer meat traded from the Tsimshian and potatos grown at the post. Fort Simpson drew furs from the Tsimshian and Tlingit people as well as from the Queen Charlotte Islands and from interior tribes down the Nass and Skeena rivers. The Tsimshian themselves played the role of middlemen, trading with outlying groups and bringing their furs to the post.

Where Simpson and McLoughlin differed was over the relative merits of land-based trading establishments versus mobile cruisers. Simpson argued that a scattering of posts inhabited by a few dozen traders were not enough to engross the entire trade of the coast. For this, the company would have to beat the Americans at their own game by employing sailing vessels to visit the various First Nations trading stations. McLoughlin disagreed, thinking that vessels were too expensive and that permanent posts were best. However, in a dispute with the governor, McLoughlin had no chance of winning. “It is perfectly out of the question to talk of discussion,” he complained, “when there are only two persons at the discussion, and one has the power to decide as he pleases and does.”

The company created a marine department, and Simpson soon convinced his superiors to pay for a new, steam-powered ship to take over as flagship of the small coastal fleet. He considered the advantages of steam over sail to be obvious in a region characterized by narrow, tide-swept channels, swift currents and shifting winds. The new vessel arrived in April, 1836. It was the legendary Beaver (pictured above), the first steam-powered vessel on the Pacific coast of North America. Built at Blackwall on the Thames out of the strongest English and African oak, it was almost 31 metres long (101 ft), with twin 35-horsepower engines driving side paddles measuring four metres (13 ft) across. It proved its worth on its very first cruise in the summer of 1836, going from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia to Fort Langley, then up the coast all the way to Sitka in the Alaskan Panhandle, putting in at all the major trading sites along the way and penetrating to the head of many of the major inlets where sailing vessels had never been able to reach. The vessel’s one drawback was its prodigious appetite for fuel. On a long day’s cruise it burned 40 cords of wood, which took the woodcutters among its crew another entire day to replace. But the boiler was fitted to burn coal as well and by the late 1840s, when coal became available from company mines on Vancouver Island, the vessel had been weaned off wood.

The experiment with steam was a great success, at least in the estimation of Simpson who believed it gave the HBC a diplomatic as well as a trading advantage. The Beaver, armed to the teeth and belching black smoke, was “the terror of every tribe on the coast,” he crowed. McLoughlin was less enthusiastic. From the beginning he thought the steamer was too expensive to operate, so he was appalled in 1841 when Simpson, without consulting him, decided to give up the coastal posts and rely on regular visits by the vessel to collect the furs. As usual, Simpson’s was the view that prevailed, and in 1843 the company closed Forts McLoughlin and Taku; Fort Stikine was abandoned six years later. Fort Simpson was retained as the only HBC fur post north of the Fraser River. (Fort Rupert was built at the north end of Vancouver Island in 1849 but it was chiefly intended to exploit the coal deposits found there.) The feud between McLoughlin and Simpson, which had become bitter and personal, was resolved finally in 1845 when the company replaced the doctor as chief of the Columbia District with a three-person Board of Management. Deeply offended, McLoughlin resigned. He moved to Oregon City where he became an American citizen. He died in 1857, and before too long was being hailed as the “Father of Oregon”.
Next time: the Oregon Question